The career of composer/pianist Donal Fox has daringly straddledtwo traditions -- Western classical music and African-American jazz andblues. Fox was born July 17, l952 in Boston, Massachusetts, into an artistichome where the music of Bach, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and Miles gotequal hearing. His career is the story of that dialectic.
Fox received early training in the Western classical piano repertoireat the New England Conservatory of Music, but began rebelling early. Hebegan composing in mixed idioms of jazz and classical as a teenager, studiedat Boston's famous "jazz college," Berklee and, at 17, received a scholarshipto study at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home to the Boston SymphonyOrchestra. Fox continued to study composition and theory under an impressiveseries of tutors. One of them, GuntherSchuller, had early on proposed the blending of jazz and European classicalidioms in a concept he called "Third Stream." Another early teacher wasT. J. Anderson, who shared not only Fox's African-American background,but an equal interest in drawing techniques from varied traditions.
Fox's Refutation and Hypothesis I, A Treatise for Piano Solo(1981), established him as an accomplished composer -- one who could drawnot only on the standard repertoire of the Western classical tradition,from Bach and the German romantics to the great modernists Stravinsky,Bartok, Schoenberg, and Cage, but also on jazz's improvisational disciplineand the shouts and field hollers of the blues. Fox's performances of thatpiece also clearly established him as a virtuoso pianist. He executed speedy,complexly written passages with crystal clear articulation and demonstrativephysical force. He could play with jazz feeling but also had a Chopinesquesense of the instrument's tonal range and color that was uncommon for ajazz pianist in the post-bop era. What's more, the score's call for spontaneousshouts, body-slaps, even cursing, drew on Fox's unique emotional resourcesas a performer. It's safe to say that Fox's early performances of Refutationand Hypothesis I (later revised for piano and chamber orchestra) shookup some traditional concert hall audiences.
In 1990, Fox began a series of collaborations that originated in Bostonand were soon stunning audiences throughout the world. In August of 1990,Fox collaborated with the saxophonist/composer Oliver Lake, a foundingmember with David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet. Their performanceof original compositions and spontaneous improvisations at Cambridge'sRegattabar Jazz Club was recorded and later released by Music and Artsas "Boston Duets." Other collaborations in the series followed. Fox performedwith Murray, with the saxophonists Billy Pierce, John Stubblefield, andthe poet Quincy Troupe. Several of these performances were recorded andbroadcast on PBS television and public radio, including the Branford Marsalis-hosted"JazzSets."
Concurrently, Fox was composer-in-residence for two seasons of the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra (1991-1993), where he worked with the St. LouisChamber players and was commissioned to write a piano concerto. He participatedin New York's "Bang on a Can" festival of new music, was invited to performat the Library of Congress, and composed "Gone City" (New World, 1997)for Boston Ballet. Meanwhile, he created a stir in his work with the chambergroups Dinosaur Annex and Boston Musica Viva. Fox prepared traditionallytrained chamber players for those performances with what he called "playingin the sandbox." Conducting from the piano, Fox prodded his colleaguesto take the leap into improvisation based on his scores and cues. The performancesimpressed critics not only with their conceptual daring, but their cohesiveintegrity.
The tensions in Fox's career between two traditions has lead to a uniqueand original style. When Fox's pieces were released on the omnibus composers'album Videmus (New World, l992), the Pulitzer Prize winning critic LloydSchwartz wrote, "Fox is one of the most exciting musical personalitieson the current scene. His four pieces are dazzlingly performed (or improvised)by the composer alone or with the marvelous young clarinetist Eric Thomasor the great alto-saxophonist Oliver Lake. The entire album achieves a vivid, even uncanny coherence -- really an entire new and powerful work in itself."
--Jon Garelick, Music Editor, The Boston Phoenix